Sunday, June 17, 2018

Enormity of song: 40 Watt Sun live at Saint Vitus

Saint Vitus, Brooklyn's temple of metal, was about as sparsely populated as I've seen it for last night's 40 Watt Sun show. I arrived with some friends a little before the band went on, and ran into some other friends, and the size of the crowd suggested a chill weeknight show rather than Saturday prime time. But to judge by the reactions at the end of the concert — in terms of, if I may, impact per capita — this was one of the more powerful performances I've attended there, or anywhere else, in recent memory.

If you're not familiar with 40 Watt Sun, a) please stop reading this immediately and listen to their latest album, 2016's absolutely exquisite Wider Than the Sky (see here for more on that one). But b) for description's sake, I'd characterize their music as a sort of poetic, gradually unfolding dirge rock. It seems relevant to note that the project is vestigially related to metal in that the singer/songwriter/bandleader, Patrick Walker, formerly fronted (and sometimes still does) Warning, a band that shares certain traits with 40 Watt Sun but had a more overtly "heavy" presentation.

But in another sense, it seems absurd, reductive, crass to associate this band with any genre, especially one as codified, plotted and ultra-taxonomied as metal. As last night's relatively brief, utterly extraordinary concert was nearing its end, I found a frustration welling up within me that things had to be this way. Why can't songs just be songs? Why is music, or any art, fragmented in such a way that music that I would consider to be objectively beautiful and moving has to be somehow stunted in terms of audience, lumped in with a genre where it will forever be an alternative to something (i.e., not your usual "doom metal," etc.)? Rather than considered simply in terms of what it has to offer, which is a vast expanse of feeling and transportive resonance.

Walker has aired similar frustrations. Consider this exchange, from a 2011 Scene Point Blank interview with Cheryl:

SPB: You were saying that Codeine were a bridge to other types of music - they're kind of lo fi...

Patrick: I don't know what the hell that is. I've heard that thrown around - lo fi, slowcore, sadcore, post rock. All these fucking terms thrown around. It's just nonsense, it's all music. It's Western Popular Music at the end of the day, isn't it? There's no point in getting hung up on things. There's no difference between that [Codeine] and anything else that people are gonna hear. It's sub-genres within sub-genres.

SPB: Not a fan of labels ?

Patrick: No.

SPB: Obviously you guys get classed as doom...

Patrick: Yes, but that's because I was in Warning. You can't escape it can you?

Anyway, right now, I'm revisiting "Another Room," from Wider Than the Sky, which the band opened with last night, and which is a perfect example of the 40 Watt Sun aesthetic, in the sense that it unfolds extremely gradually, asks everything from the listener in terms of attention and patience and stillness, but rewards that focus with such intense clarity of emotion, a sort of time-release shot of feeling that seems to almost enter your bloodstream and slowly flow out to your extremities. Once you are in the space of this music, the conventions of any other music immediately recede, so that you are simply existing with, and even within, these songs. There is not ever the slightest sense of wanting them to "pick up the pace" or "get on with it"; the idea of room is so essential to the power of what they do that, standing there in the physical presence of these songs — I think of the sort of majestic trudge of the verses of "Another Room," wherein the downbeat on the snare seems to take forever to arrive — it's almost hard to imagine a music that doesn't behave in this manner, doesn't treat space and time with such care and delicacy. ("I like sparsity and space in music," Walker told Noisey in 2016. "I like to be able to feel what I'm playing and to think about what I'm singing.")

Walker's songwriting is extremely skillful, built around repetitive but deeply elegant chord changes, sections that cycle over and over without losing a deep sense of purpose, and then opening into these grand and majestic sort of turnarounds. I hesitate to even call them choruses; they're more like sacred arrivals. I think of the "I'm standing on the inside" refrain in "Another Room," and how just inexpressibly right it feels when it comes around — like, yes, this is exactly where this song needs to go at this moment. And the compositions too often pick up in intensity near the end, with a relatively hard-hitting instrumental section that acts as a kind of release for the ocean of feeling that has been building and building throughout the song.

And what is that feeling? Again, just as I bristle at the idea of this band being classified or ghettoized — and, not being a member of the band, really what I'm bristling at is the idea that the band's potential audience would be somehow limited by this notion, that people who might otherwise discover it and treasure it the way that I and the others in that room last night clearly do might somehow never even find out it exists — I shy away from using reductive or banal terms to describe the emotions their music expresses. I guess I could frame it another way and discuss the quality and affect of Walker's voice, which is stunning on record and something considerably more than that in person. He sings with such purity and grace and humble potency. (All those clich├ęd terms, from "croon" to "howl" seem to fall pitifully short in the face of his delivery, in much the same way that words like "melancholy" or "forlorn" seem to give only the faintest approximation of the moods Walker's songs conjure; the best way I can describe it is as sort of this direct emission of melody. His melodies are winding and ingenious but extremely fluid and logical, moving in long, orderly arcs; sometimes he'll sort of reach for a climactic note but he's not an overtly dramatic or demonstrative singer; all the affect is there in the line itself.) There are singers who seem as though they're actively trying to break your heart, and depending on their degree of skill, sometimes they will succeed through this concerted effort, but in Walker's case, there is a very different quality, almost a humility. He does not appear to be trying to have any particular effect at all on the listener; his service is only to the song. There was communion going on at last night's concert, and by that I mean that people were absolutely rapt, embracing their partners and mouthing every word, but there was not that sort of tedious and creepy sense of hero worship flowing from audience to performer. And that is, I think, due in part to Walker's uncanny degree of unpretentiousness and lack of ceremony or drama onstage. He wants and needs to get inside this music, and he will do so — aided greatly, I should say, by the consummately sensitive and unassuming playing of 40 Watt Sun's rhythm section, consisting of, on record, at least, drummer Christian Leitch and bassist William Spong, though I'm not 100% sure those were the two musicians who accompanied Walker last night (Note: Walker helpfully informed me that it was Andrew Prestidge on drums and Alasdair C. Mitchell on bass at Saint Vitus)— but he will not visibly emote or "perform" beyond what the song itself needs or demands. Frankly, seeing him deliver this monumentally moving music without seeming to "sell" it in any way to the audience only made it that much more affecting.

Which brings me to his between-song banter, which was disarmingly casual and funny and, again, only served to intensify the spotlight on the real focus of the evening, which was the songs. Before the band started playing, after Walker thanked the audience for being there, someone yelled out that they "wanted to be sad" or "were ready to be sad," or something to that effect. "You can stay at home and be sad, mate," Walker cracked with classic dry British wit. And in between songs, he told various stories of what I'd describe as misguided fandom. (Like the time a guy came up to him after a Warning show and told him very earnestly that a given song of theirs was "the second-greatest song of all time," the first being by Tori Amos.) Make no mistake, Walker clearly appreciates his fervent fan base, but he also can't help but, in his words, "take the piss," out of listeners who can only view his art in a single dimension. He described several attendees of past shows expressing dissatisfaction with his stage demeanor, saying of one fan that he was (I'm paraphrasing here) "upset that I didn't seem depressed."

Now this whole concept, i.e., that just because a given artist's music projects a certain emotion doesn't mean that this artist personally embodies that emotion, or ever did embody it, is one that should be self-evident to any mature music fan but that also is easy to lose sight of when the music in question is as affecting as Walker's. A fan might like to imagine him perpetually staring out the window at a rainy English countryside, nursing his melancholy for months on end as he prepares to slump over to his guitar and compose a new dirge. But the simple fact is that he seems like a normal, well-adjusted guy who just happens to write intensely poignant songs that seem to practically glisten with the residue of loss and the yearning and alienation that can accompany human love.

As his career has progressed, Walker seems to have only moved further from any kind of generic expression. If Warning was all about crushing loss, 40 Watt Sun expresses a deeply shaded range of feeling. In comparison with other 40 Watt songs, "Marazion," the relatively brief closing track of Wider Than the Sky, and a highlight of last night's set, embodies a kind of lightness and hopefulness, a sense that yes, we've been through the ringer here, but maybe it'll be alright. And anyway, even if not, we still have to be moving on, don't we?

The sort of normalcy of the whole event last night — Walker squeezing honey into his mouth out of one of those bear-shaped bottles at various points; misplacing his capo and asking his companion in the audience to go downstairs and check if it was in his "trousers"; or just striding casually through the crowd to the bar after a devastating unaccompanied encore — seemed so beautifully at odds with the transcendent nature of what were all witnessing. Walker seems to at once understand that his music inspires great fervor and to appreciate this fact greatly but also to intent to express to his audience that he doesn't have any answers for them beyond the songs themselves. From the Noisey interview:

Noisey: Many times you've voiced your distaste for interviews, so I really appreciate you giving us one. To be honest, I appreciate your minimalism. Interviews can be gratuitous, and with a cult of personality surrounding many artists, it gets annoyingly beside the point sometimes.

Patrick Walker: I can't overemphasize how much I agree with you on the "cult of personality" and gratuitous nature of so many interviews; reading "artists" indulging in their own myth-building and so forth. I find it all repulsive.
There wasn't even any merch for sale after the show (apparently some LPs had sold out before the band's set). Just a relatively small group, maybe or 50 or milling around in the bar, sort of happily stunned. "That's why you do music," my friend Nick said, summing up what we were all thinking. The words, the sounds, the unadorned splendor of that voice, so clear, luminous and laden with feeling, like a blessing descending upon us all for a too-brief hour or so, to be relished if not recaptured. To re-immerse in reality after a show like that is, frankly, somewhat painful. But I'm thankful that some shadow of the experience lives on the records. And that I got to be there in that little room, with those relatively few others, soaking up that enormity of song.


*I'm very intrigued by these two playlists that Patrick Walker put together — one from this year and one from 2016 — that might give some insight into what speaks to him as a songwriter and fan. It will quickly become clear on checking these out just how far Walker's aesthetic values stray from "metal" or any other reductive notion of genre.

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